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Stephen King issues a challenge to ''Lost'' execs

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LOST: Mario Perez

Stephen King issues a challenge to ”Lost” execs

Maybe one reason this summer’s movie offerings looked so cheesy was that they came after a particularly brilliant TV season, starring (but certainly not limited to) Desperate Housewives, 24, The Wire, The Shield, and Lost.

Ah, Lost. There’s never been anything like it on TV for capturing the imagination, except The Twilight Zone and The X-Files. The series may have at first seemed a rough fictional equivalent of Survivor, but Lost parted company from such wheezy rituals as Tribal Councils almost immediately, and there are no immunity challenges (I think the guy who got sucked into the jet engine in episode 1 proved that resoundingly).

The plot is dead simple — 48 plane-crash survivors stranded on a tropical island — but the production values are grade-A and the characters are involving. Lost projects a sense of genuine awe and mystery, making it most unusual in a medium more known for boredom and predictability.

There’s a lot riding on the second season, and I’m not talking about whether the folks who left on the raft will return (they will), whether Kate will sleep with Jack (she won’t), or if Charlie will sample the heroin Locke and Boone found (of course he will). What’s really on the table here is no less than the soul of what I think of as ”the new TV.”

The perfect critique of the old TV is offered in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Gordie Lachance asks his buds if they’ve ever noticed that the people on Wagon Train (an old ’50s show) never seem to get anywhere. ”They just keep wagon-training,” he says, clearly mystified. Of course he is. Gordie’s going to grow up to be a writer, and even at age 12 he knows that stories should resemble life, and life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We grow, change, succeed, and fail; eventually we keel over dead, but we do not just keep on wagon-training.

All of the shows I’ve mentioned above acknowledge this fact. But they all also face a huge problem, a.k.a. the Prime Network Directive: Thou Shalt Not Kill the Cash Cow.

That directive is what made the final seasons of The X-Files so ignominious. There was no real closure (as opposed to The Fugitive, for example, when Dr. Richard Kimble finally caught up with the one-armed man in the show’s superb two-part conclusion); minus the continuing presence of David Duchovny, X-Files blundered off into a swamp of black oil, and in that swamp it died. I could have throttled the executives at Fox for doing that, and Chris Carter for letting it happen. If J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and their band of co-conspirators allow something similar to happen with Lost, I’m going to be even more pissed, because this show is better. Memo to Abrams and staff writers: Your responsibilities include knowing when to write The End.

The setting of Lost is exotic; I’m sure almost every viewer has harbored the thought that he or she would like to be one of these castaways (especially since the supply of totally dope resort clothes seems endless). The character pool is plentiful; we had 13 major characters at the end of last season, and there are over 30 more survivors to draw from. And there are fascinating questions. What’s the beast? What’s up with that polar bear? What’s that ship doing on the island? Who are ”The Others” and where are they hiding? Where does the shaft below the hatch go? These coincidences, which are more like convergences, have led me to agree with the popular Internet chat-room solution, i.e., that the survivors are actually dead, and that the island is their purgatory, a place where they can put paid to sins of omission and commission before going on.

The creators themselves may not know why the numbers on Hurley’s winning lottery ticket are replicated on the side of the hatch, or the significance of the polar bear in the comic book 9-year-old Walt was reading shortly before Sawyer shot a real one on the llano, but who cares? The chief attributes of creators are faith and arrogance: faith that there is a solution, and the arrogance to believe they are exactly the right people to find it. The hard part will be telling ABC that Lost is going to conclude with season 3 or season 4, while the audience is still crazy about the show.

ABC parent Disney, of course, will scream bloody murder. To call Lost (like Desperate Housewives) a cash cow is an understatement. We’re talking about millions here, and if the show runs long enough, potentially hundreds of millions in DVDs and more.

None of that changes the basic facts: When a meal is perfectly cooked, it’s time to take it out of the oven. And when a story is perfectly told, it’s time to fade to black. It doesn’t matter to me if Jack, Kate, and the others realize they’re all dead and descend that shaft into a bright white Kübler-Ross beam of light or if they go to war with each other in a final burst of Lord of the Flies savagery. They can discover they’re part of an experiment (human or alien). Jack can even — groan! —wake up and discover the whole thing’s a dream (actually, I’d hate that).

But please, guys — don’t beat this sweet cow to death with years of ponderous flashback padding. End it any way you want, but when it’s time for closure, provide it. Don’t just keep on wagon-training.

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